The names Natalie Hemby and Luke Dick have appeared side-by-side in the songwriting credits of some of the most ambitious albums generated by the Nashville mainstream in recent years. They helped craft Kacey Musgraves' "Velvet Elvis," a disco-dosed declaration of affection in the key of kitsch, Dierks Bentley's "The Mountain", a song whose burnished country-rock lands somewhere between bohemian and aspirational, and two of Miranda Lambert's recent hits; the quirky declaration of wanderlust "Highway Vagabond" and sly ode to flaunting low-budget accessories "Pink Sunglasses."
"Filmmaker" is another credit that Dick and Hemby share in common; they've each made documentaries the focus on members of their families. Several years back, Hemby premiered "Puxico," her tender portrait of her grandfather George, his tiny town in southern Missouri and its annual VFW-sponsored carnival, to a Nashville theater packed with peers from the songwriting community. Last January, she followed up with an album of the same title, containing the film's nine sparkling, folk-country expressions of particularized, small-town nostalgia. This October, Dick, who'd previously only made short films and music videos, booked the same independent Nashville theater to screen "Red Dog," his frolicsome, feature-length account of his mother's long-gone days as an Oklahoma City stripper and single mom with an irrepressible survival instinct, soundtracked by his kaleidoscopic, primarily instrumental compositions and eventually bound for the film festival circuit and wider release.
On a recent morning, Hemby and Dick met up with this interviewer in the small studio behind Dick's East Nashville home, a one-room structure furnished with a couch, easy chairs, a row of salvaged lockers, a computer recording rig and various stringed instruments where they'd conceived a new song together just a couple of days earlier. "This is my favorite place to write," Hemby insisted, sipping coffee from a travel mug. After Dick distributed breakfast biscuits from a local bakery and lit his professorial pipe, the two frequent collaborators were ready to talk shop.
Jewly Hight: How did the challenges you faced in the process of making your first full-length documentaries compare?
Natalie Hemby: Mine was purely a passion [project] and I had no idea what I was doing. I don't know anything about filmmaking. I love film just like anybody else, documentaries and that sort of thing. I've always been this person who thinks, "I bet I could do that," and I just jump right in. ...I was a cross country runner for a couple of years, and before my first meet I hardly had been practicing. I came in dead last. I sort of feel like my documentary experience might have been the same way. It took me five years to finish it. But my heart was so very into it.
So I meet [Luke] and see his seven-minute documentary (2013's "Bread for Boppa"), and I'm like, "Wow, that already looks way better than mine." [Laughs] However, what I've never cared about—and I feel this way about music—is the sheen of something. I care more about the heart of it. And I knew I had the heart of the story, and I loved the heart of his story even more.
Luke Dick: It's not like I was Martin Scorsese or something, but me and my buddies had been running cameras and stuff for maybe five years in New York before I decided to take on a bigger project. So I [asked Natalie], "Yo, what gave you the balls to just jump on out there and rock a doc when you've never held a camera in your life? Kudos. And you finished it!"
NH: Finishing it was so hard.
LD: Finishing anything of that magnitude, to me, seems like [making] a dozen records or something.
NH: I had the balls. I just didn't have the brains.
You both work all the time in a songwriting medium that can be as personal as you want to make it, but while you put your ideas into the songs you write with people, you're not usually making it about you and where you're coming from personally. Even as front man of his own band Republican Hair, Luke inhabits an enigmatic persona. And yet you both turned to filmmaking, a medium that isn't typically autobiographical, to explore your roots. What kind of shift in perspective did that require?
NH: What brought it home for me was when my grandmother passed away. I was like, "It would be such a shame to spend all this time and not finish it and not give it as much time and attention as I could."
I imagine it's hard to be objective when you're dealing with material that feels that close.
NH: Oh, it's insanely hard to be objective. [Filmmaker] Jeff [Wyatt Wilson] was great for that. The thing I wanted to do was leave myself out of it, but he's like, "No, that's part of the story: You and your grandfather." So I had to interject and write the narration. The music came gradually. [Songwriter] Trent Dabbs was a huge help with that. I just started collecting pieces as we started making the film that went with it. Obviously it's not on all these formats and it's not on Netflix and that sort of thing. I'm so glad I got to finish it and show it to Puxico.
LD: Can you buy that film on iTunes?
NH: You can buy it on DVD. I don't even have it on iTunes! Maybe you can help me with that.
LD: Process-wise, I think that I had it easier than you, for a couple of reasons. One was that I had a partner [Casey Pinkston] who I'd been working with for years, who I trusted wholeheartedly. ...We work well together. ... The other thing we were able to do was hours and hours of pre-production. So I've still yet to sit in front of an editing screen. ... He's a stay-at-home dad, so this is the only project essentially that he's doing. So we can pre-produce for three hours, talk about the film, then we get an interview, talk about that interview and how it fits in the context of the film. ... There were a couple of shoots that I managed myself, but constantly we were able to talk about what the final product might look like and what we needed to finish the project in order to make it an arc. That was a real luxury.
With a documentary, it's the great wide open in terms of what you think you're gonna end up with and what you end up with. ... All I knew was my mother was utterly compelling and if we had to, we could hang the whole movie on my mother. We ended up getting three or four other great stories, so we didn't do my narrative. I had the same hesitation [as Natalie].
Being hesitant to insert yourself?
LD: Yeah, as to what degree. One of the creative decisions was I [didn't] want a narration at all.
Even though you were both capturing people, places and times from your past that are meaningful to you, you took such different directions. Natalie's film and album celebrate the sturdiness and solidity of small-town life, the continuation of tradition. Luke's shines a light on what people will no doubt see as a very unconventional upbringing. So it's convention versus the lack thereof. How did you determine what tone to strike toward your subject matter so that it wouldn't get overly sentimental or judgmental?
NH: I wanted to be very respectful toward the people [in the town of Puxico.] If you love anything, you want to show it in the light that you see it. That's kinda what I was trying to do. Is Puxico perfect? Absolutely not. Do they have people who have meth problems? Absolutely. ... But [Puxico's annual homecoming] was something that I loved and I wanted to show why I loved it. Did I get a little overly sentimental? I probably did. I had a hard time narrowing down the film, because there were a lot of great stories.
I feel like there's beauty in the conventional and there's beauty in the nonconventional. What struck me about Luke's film was the subject matter. Because I'm a modest person, I was afraid watching these stories about his mother and what she did for a living would make me feel uncomfortable, because it's Luke's mom and I know her. But it was done so tastefully and it made me love her even more. I like knowing her story. I thought he did a great job with subject matter that is hard to not turn into something...
NH: Yes, tawdry.
LD: Oh, it is tawdry. I know what you're saying, though. That was my main anxiety. I feel like I've got a better sense of it now that I've shown it to people and know how they view my mom. Always the intention was to try to be as transparent as possible. This is a movie about parenthood generally, but there's also drug culture, sex work culture, and then there's a little bit of music culture in there, too. You could go just straight-up dark with the story, but I don't feel like that's my mom. She always talks about it warmly. These are her friends that she keeps her entire life. This is ultimately good. ... My mom is funny as hell. I want her spirit to be in the film.
At the "Red Dog" screening, I was conscious of the fact that I was sitting right in front of Luke's mom, and listening to the way that people were responding to her on screen. Natalie, you had your version of that, presenting the film in front of your grandfather. What kind of anxiety did you experience about letting people you know and love see how you'd portrayed them?
NH: Oh my lord. I had to go to the bathroom all the time. I was so nervous. ...[At the premiere in Puxico] I got up and said, "I cannot tell all your stories, but I want you to know I'm trying to tell the story through my eyes about your town, your lives." I didn't want them to be like, "Well, they didn't put that part in there about my grandfather who fought in World War II." It's very touchy when you talk about someone else's life.
LD: Yeah, I had to cut a few murders out of the film, just because I didn't have time for them.
My mom had faith in me not to make a fool of her. And I had faith in mine and Casey's abilities not to make a fool of her. And once I watched it, I felt like, "This is not making a fool of her." But you're not sure until you show the film. So she's walking in there with me, and thank god we were only there like a minute before the thing started, because the anxiety. ... The last thing I want is for my mother to be this universal fart joke behind stripping or something like that. I want it to validate her life and not to make a joke of her life at all. By the end of the film, I totally felt that the room had opened up and that she was the hero of the film and people loved her.
NH: That's how I felt about [how people saw Grandpa] George too.
LD: I was never gonna pressure my mom into making a film that she didn't want to make. My mom agreed to it. ...We had to work so in depth with her, over and over again, setting up shit at her house and recording her and all that. Some of those stories we got three or four times. We lost some footage on a hard drive one time.
NH: We lost some footage, too. It's not a documentary if you haven't lost footage.
LD: So we had to get a couple of things again. By the end of it, my mom was annoyed with me, but she loved Casey. So I was like, "Alright, you're gonna have to tell her to do X, because she'll listen to you."
NH: Same thing with [filmmakers] Ryan [Silver] and Scott [Murphy]. They would take George out and Scott would be like, "Why don't you not come?" [My grandpa] would open up much more.
LD: People keep asking me, "Is this part of your process of processing your youth or whatever?" ... I didn't really look at it like that. ... Not until musically scoring things did I become emotional about the film in a real way. I thought I was going crazy for a minute because I worked so hard for two or three weeks straight getting the first round of compositions done, where it's just a little chord pad.
It's not lyric-driven compositions that you're talking about.
LD: No, and it solidified my belief in the magic of music in a way, and what my life has been about so far. ... Some days you get in here and you're just writing another song. But to sit there and say, "Wow, this is an amazing story and this is my mother and this is where I came from, and here I am 20 years into a music career essentially being able to dial up something," it's like every little decision that you made led up to a two-note chord underneath her talking about the anxiety that she had as a youth, or not knowing what it's like to be a mother. I really was a hot mess for a minute out here thinking about that.
NH: [Guitarist] Greg Leisz is a really good friend of ours. He's played on everyone's records, toured with Clapton. He's my favorite and definitely my [producer] husband [Mike Wrucke]'s favorite pedal steel player. ... I was like, "I [envision] his playing in the background, but I don't know what to ask him to play." Mike [asked him], "Will you play some landscape-type pads in the background?" And he kinda described "Puxico" the film [to Greg]. ... He just started playing these amazing landscapes. It didn't sound like pedal steel, but it did. It sounded like Puxico. It sounded like the fields and the rolling hills and the sleepiness of the little town. I would edit to that in my headphones, and I would get so emotional because it was starting to come to life.
[Luke] didn't have narration in there, but I did, and it helped me write the narration, because I had the feeling of what tone to use. ... If you have beautiful ethereal background music, you're going to write something more emotional.
LD: I would take segments and think about the vibe, knowing what the segment before and the segment after was going to be, and try to find the way to get from one to another. ... It was some of the most gratifying bits of music that I've done in a long time.
Natalie was dealing with the theme of how to keep a way of life alive, and that comes through in songs like "I'll Remember How You Loved Me." On the other hand, Luke was sort of on a quest to figure out how accurately his mom remembered things. How do you feel like you each ended up relating to memory and how malleable it is, how people can mold it in a way that creates meaning for them?
NH: Sometimes truth is so big, and I think it should be [that way] in music as well as filmmaking and documentaries. I feel like I was just trying to be authentic to what Puxico was to me. The biggest compliment to me was that one of my friends who always makes cracks about his small town and has probably written thousands of songs about it said, "You made me fall in love with my hometown again."
Hometowns can raise some absolutely horrible people, but they can also raise some amazing people, who are like a backbone for society. ...I feel like in a lot of ways your documentary is the same way. These people had to get up and go to their job. They found a group of people who were like their family.
LD: At first, I would just wind my mom up and let her go in terms of telling a story, because she's such a force, without any regard for the truth. We had to get the stories a couple of different times, and I could tell she was nervous that she wasn't gonna tell the story the same way twice. What became really fun was once we started interviewing other people, there were these corroborations of the major details of the story, so it vindicated my mother's telling of the thing.
NH: Documentary interviews are like the sincerest form of manipulation. It's like you don't want to be obvious about your approach. ...What I loved the most about that film was hearing how George lived and how it was really rough conditions.
LD: For me, it's interesting to see your parents flailing about as parents and to see that they were obviously just figuring it out too. You don't ever know that as a kid, that your parents are just figuring it out. ... I got a lot of really nice heartfelt long emails and stuff after I showed [the film.] I remember one said, "My life wasn't nearly as crazy as that [story], but I saw myself in it. There's something universal to the [screwed] up aspect of families." I didn't expect that. ... I feel like art in its best sense gives you something like that, some solidarity. So I was really happy that came across the desk.
Natalie, have you performed at Puxico's Homecoming and Luke, do you plan to perform at the Red Dog?
NH: Oh, absolutely! We did a songwriters round. ... Barry Dean, Luke Laird and Trent Dabbs all came to the premiere. Maren came to the premiere in Puxico too, and my friends Lindsay Chapman and Kelly Archer.
LD: It was a regional viral thing when I put the Kickstarter [fundraising campaign] out. We were on the cover of the Oklahoma Gazette down there, which freaked my mom out.
One of the things that happened was the rock station I'd listened to my whole life, Rock 100.5 The Katt, one of the [morning hosts] called me after the thing came out, and he was like, "Maybe we'll do a showing at the Red Dog and we'll sponsor and you guys can play." It's cool to have your hometown rally for you and your thing.